Nearly 100 Prince William County public school teachers have formed a chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, making it the union's sixth chapter formed in Virginia in recent years.
AFT leaders say they are making significant gains in Virginia where public school teachers have been exclusively represented by the National Education Association for decades.
They say state teachers believe the AFT, linked to the powerful AFL-CIO, is a strong union that will give them more power in Virginia, a state where collective bargaining for public employes is prohibited.
The AFT "gives them a sense of being affiliated with the labor movement," said Scott D. Widmeyer, AFT national spokesman. "The AFT is much more active in the labor movement."
But state education officials said this week some Virginia teachers are simply fed up with the status quo and are turning from the NEA to another teachers' organization that has no more power than the NEA.
"Under Virginia law they both have the same status," said George Raiss, spokesman for the Norfolk school system that has both AFT and NEA local chapters. "There is a number of similarities, a lot of duplication of efforts."
Norfolk, Hampton, Concord and Newport News have formed active chapters of the AFT within the last four years. Fairfax County formed the first chapter in the state 10 years ago, officials there say.
Anthony Futyma, a fourth-grade teacher who is organizing the Prince William AFT chapter, said the new association will allow teachers greater say in county decisions affecting public education.
"It was an opportune time for the AFT to come into Prince William," he said. "Teachers here are dissatisfied with their limited impact on education in this state."
But members of the Prince William Education Association, the local chapter of the NEA, see the arrival of AFT as a break in teachers' ranks and say it will weaken their power.
"When you have a factional group, quite often management will play up on that division," Joy Arnold, PWEA executive director, said. "Every member we lose we weaken a little bit and the teachers' cause weakens a little bit."
Arnold said most county teachers are pleased with the progress of the education association and attributes the creation of the new AFT chapter to "personalities." Futyma was president of the PWEA last year but lost his bid for reelection this year.
"He was a disappointed young man and open to the entreaties of the AFT," she said.
On Sept. 1, the PWEA board of directors voted to kick Futyma off the board because directors said his involvement in the AFT chapter was a conflict of interest.
Futyma, who as past president of the PWEA was chairman of this year's board, said he will appeal the decision to the general membership.
Last year, the PWEA had 1,530 members out of Prince William's 2,100 teachers, Arnold said. This year, she said she expects a 70 percent renewal rate, with the remaining 30 percent opting for the new AFT chapter or forgoing teacher associations altogether.
Both the education association and AFT offer members similar services, including health insurance and legal representation. Annual dues are $183 for the association and $150 for the AFT.
Prince William school officials have met every year with members of the PWEA to discuss teachers' contracts for the coming year, school spokeswoman Kristy Larson said. Because the state prohibits collective bargaining, the meetings are really a presentation of the association's wish list for the coming year, she said.
This year, she said, the school board will meet with both teacher associations.
County school Superintendent Richard W. Johnson said last week he will welcome the new AFT chapter. "Anyone has a right to organize and we will meet with any employe group," he said.
Teachers in the Norfolk school system, similar to Prince William in size, chartered an AFT chapter in the mid-1970s and reactivated it two years ago. In those two years, the unit's membership has jumped from fewer than 50 to more than 600 in the entire Tidewater area, AFT chapter president Marian D. Flickinger said.